“How do you make cold brew?”
“I just stick a bunch of coffee grounds in water, and leave it for a day, two days. Filter it out and there’s your coffee.”
He likes his coffee and I’m telling him about how I make my summer brew as we walk past snow-covered vegetable gardens in suburbia. When waiting for him and his brother at the railroad crossing the first snow of the year is already turning to slush, soaking their socks as the day wears on. I meet him with a hug, possibly the first we’ve had. I haven’t seen him for 13 years. 11-year old me would have been thrilled. He was always taller than me and now more so, and his voice is deeper than I remember. Of course it would be. Any vestiges of a Malaysian accent have been erased by a decade of living in Australia, but the Monroe-esque mole on the left side of his mouth is still there. I always had a soft spot for it.
This afternoon I take them to a few temples around my neighbourhood, since they want a local perspective on Kyoto. We watch the snow fall from inside Shisendo. I stop to photograph mossy stone walls, with their amazing variety of textures and colours – purple, green, traffic light yellow – and point out all the Thomassons, which are my latest infatuation. He tells me that in Australia my mama-chari would be considered terribly hipster. In describing the racial makeup of university courses he refers to ‘Orientals’ – including himself in this – and I shudder. We joke about pumpkin spice latte, the quintessential American white girl phenomenon, which has thankfully not found much traction elsewhere for now.
It’s oddly personal and impersonal all at once, talking to someone you think you should know but don’t. Much of this is banter: friendly banter, but banter all the same. All afternoon I wonder if I will feel my throat catch at all, but it doesn’t, not even walking next to someone whose home phone number was once burned into my brain during that time in my life when I was too young to have any compunctions about calling him. I don’t even remember the excuses I gave on those occasions that his mother would pick up the phone, radiating irritation into my ear. I simply wanted to hear his voice.
We share the same birthday: another thing in common – no matter how coincidental – is another excuse to fall a little deeper into a crush when you don’t know any better. The bar is higher now, obviously. That bold, youthful yearning, though – replaced by a million indecisions to battle through before opening up a chat box to say hello. It takes years to unlearn hesitations and I am still learning to go for the kill.
“Is there anything you love doing?” We’re talking about the years between us, the road in front of us.
“That’s the thing. I don’t really know what I love doing,” he says. “I mean, I enjoy what I’m studying… but you know, I don’t really know much else apart from the expected path – go to school, finish uni, get a job. Get paid well, save money, buy a house. That kind of thing.”
“Are you okay with that?”
“I guess so, I mean…”
“Is it the security?”
He smiles, maybe a little ruefully.
I take them to my favourite kissaten in town. It’s a tiny 10-seater place, a counter and jazz posters on the wall. A cup of coffee sets you back JPY500 but it’s not just the coffee you pay for: it’s the pleasure of leaning back on these sturdy chairs that know exactly how to hug your back, the jazz du jour washing over you as the elderly owner hums a little to himself, a little more fragile than he used to be. The last few times I cycled past it was closed when it shouldn’t have been. Rehabilitation, I overhear his wife telling another customer. He’s not been well. But getting better. I think about the times I’ve been here and they’ve stood in personable silence behind the counter.
Our coffee takes 10 minutes to arrive. It begins with a whizzing roar at the end of the counter, the man grinding coffee beans to order, tipping them onto filter paper. His wife dribbles hot water onto the grounds, her wrist dipping up and down. Eventually she sets out three saucers in a row in front of me, one by one, and then the cups – old-fashioned, elegant porcelain cups with delicate handles. She pours us our coffee from a saucepan, and sets out a tiny thumb-sized jug of – cream? half-and-half? – on the side of each cup.
The coffee is dark and fragrant. He waxes lyrical about the way coffee is served in Japan, with just a little cream on the side adding that slight richness to the brew. I have never quite thought about it that way, but he’s right. Today I drip the milk in slowly, watching my coffee bloom to dark ochre.
“We’ll get your coffee,” he says. “You took time out from work to show us around, it’s the least we can do.” A kind gesture, a thoroughly adult one. I let him pay for my coffee, and feel the years sink into my bones.